(INDIANAPOLIS) — Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is the world’s fastest-growing developmental disability, affecting 1 in 44 children in the United States alone. Fortunately, exercise provides many benefits for those with autism, including improvements to quality of life and management of stereotypical behaviors like verbal repetition and hand-flapping. In fact, parents rate exercise as the No. 1 intervention for these behaviors.
April is National Autism Awareness Month, and the American College of Sports Medicine® (ACSM) is calling on school officials, parents and exercise professionals to provide beneficial exercise programming to students with autism.
“The impact of exercise for those with autism is often misunderstood,” says David Geslak, ACSM-EP, CSCS, president and founder of the autism and inclusive exercise organization Exercise Connection. “It is shown to have an impact beyond the health-related benefits. Exercise is vital to a person with autism’s physical and cognitive development, and it needs to be part of their lifestyle. ACSM and I want professionals to be prepared with evidence-based teaching practices so they use exercise to empower those with autism to reach their full potential.”
In fact, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), U.S. law mandates physical education for students with disabilities. School officials should commit to providing physical education for all students during the school day, including the proper environment and programming for the growing number of students with autism.
Parents should likewise be aware of these legal requirements. If a school isn’t setting aside appropriate exercise time and resources, parents should meet with administrators and remind them of their responsibility to provide adequate exercise opportunities.
Parents should also consider reaching out to an exercise professional who holds an autism-specific exercise certification, such as the ACSM Autism Exercise Specialist certificate. Certificate-holders have completed condition-tailored training beyond the rigorous standards of conventional ACSM certifications, focusing on autism and its relationship to exercise programming, safety and benefits.
Exercise professionals who have not yet completed an autism-specific credential should consider pursuing the ACSM Autism Exercise Specialist or similar certification. People with autism may have needs beyond those of the typical client, and taking the time to earn this certification will not only provide exercise professionals with useful information but also demonstrate their qualifications to parents and clients with autism.
The benefits of exercise for those with autism are clear. Geslak recalls a statement made to him by one of his clients’ parents:
“For my son Brody, exercise provided a backdrop to age-appropriate regulation, communication, a release from stress, and weight loss. It crosses back and forth from school to home, allowing him to feel superior in one particular setting when most times he feels out of the loop or disconnected. And now in gym class, he rises to the occasion.”
It’s important to remember that the term “autism” represents a suite of presentations and behaviors, and no two individuals with autism are alike. Similarly, different people may prefer different terminology: Despite a contemporary push toward using people-first language when describing developmental conditions, some with autism embrace and take pride in the term “autistics” as a group identifier. Though Autism Awareness Month highlights ASD as a whole, it is important to always consider the unique characteristics, needs and desires of the individual, something certified exercise specialists are particularly qualified to do.
This month, let’s recommit ourselves to those with autism. With the combined efforts of parents, exercise specialists and education officials, the growing number of students with autism must be able to access condition-specific exercise, improving their day-to-day experience and helping them manage behaviors that may get in the way of learning and thriving.